Harsh Reaction After Aaron Swartz's Death Prompts MIT Investigation

After the initial emotional outpouring over Aaron Swartz's death, those close to Swartz are heaping the blame on MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office. One of those two will look at what role they may have played in Swartz's death. 

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News of Swartz's death spread like wild fire Saturday morning. The 26-year-old Reddit co-founder committed suicide in his apartment in New York. At the time of his death, he was in a legal battle with the Massachusetts' Attorney's office. Swartz broke into MIT and downloaded nearly five million documents from JSTOR, an academic archive, and was accused of wanting to distribute them freely. JSTOR decided not to pursue charges, while MIT was less clear with their intention to prosecutors. The Massachusetts Attorney's office decided to charge Swartz anyway. If convicted, he faced up to 30 years in jail. 

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Swartz's family released a statement late Saturday evening, and they didn't try and hide their disdain for the Massachusetts Attorney's office, or MIT. They directly blamed both for Swartz's decision to commit suicide: 

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Lawrence Lessig, Swartz's mentor, released a similar strongly worded statement blaming the Attorney's office and MIT for Swartz's death: 

Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.

Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

In the wake of his death, academics started posting their articles -- like the ones Swartz downloaded from JSTOR -- on Twitter for free. (You can check out all the articles posted to Twitter here.)

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MIT is now responding to this criticism by launching a full investigation into what transpired from the night Swartz initially downloaded the articles, all the way through the criminal investigation, to the present day. In a written statement released Friday evening, MIT President L. Rafael Reif said the school plans to analyze every decision the school made in Swartz's case. "Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT," Reif writes. "I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took."

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